Chapter 147: The City in the Desert

Burning Man aerial

… a Burning Man 2009 travelogue …

Down a wandering road in northwestern Nevada there is a place that doesn’t have many things. Sure, it has sky and ground, but you might be struck by an absence of things most of us consider ubiquitous, such as people, trees, plants, animals, rivers, lakes or even the occasional puddle. There isn’t even much of a change in elevation; it’s a vast, completely flat expanse that is mostly devoid even of color. This place, the one that is absent most things, is called the Black Rock Desert. The ancient lakebed, also called the playa, stretches between mountains, the stunning remnants of a lake that has been dry for tens of thousands of years.

Once a year this place is not absent of things. Once a year this place teams with life and activity. Once a year this is the place where they Burn the Man.

Five of us boarded airplanes and flew thousands of miles to Salt Lake City, where we packed an SUV past its breaking point to drive further into the desert. We took roads that were smaller and smaller until we left roads entirely and were driving on the lakebed itself. We drove to the entrance of Black Rock City, which at night appeared as a glimmering mecca of light on the horizon. We got out of our car to receive hugs, have playa dust thrown in our hair and, in a place none of us had ever been, to be greeted with the phrase “Welcome home.”

Fifty thousand people had arranged themselves neatly into a circular grid two miles across. Thousands upon thousands of tents, RVs, trailers, trucks and tarps covered the playa for as far as you could see. People dressed in every type of garb imaginable wandered the streets at every hour of the day: hippies, steam-punks, ravers, topless girls, squares, shirtcocks (men wearing only shirts). And then there were the vehicles.

Burning Man camp

Five thousand bikes and hundreds of modified art cars were made to look like dragons, boats, castles, beasts, nightmares, faces, anything and everything imaginable. All combined to a swirling cacophony of motion and costume, with fire breathing pirate ships swerving between naked women on bikes, surrounded by hapless wanderers trying to keep a raging dust storm out of their lungs. You could ride on most of the art cars and the occasional topless woman if you asked kindly enough.

There is no money at Burning Man. At first this sounds outright preposterous, then later it sounds fairly preposterous, and to this day it still sounds slightly preposterous. The economy on the playa is based on two thoughts: self-reliance and gifting. You must be prepared to survive on your own. This involves bringing your own water, food, shade, clothing, medical supplies, beer, drugs, books, topless women to ride, etc. That being said, if someone happens to find themselves with a surplus of any of these items, they might happily gift them out to the needy or whoever else happens to wander by. As but one example, we drank ourselves silly through the generosity of a bar named “Oasis” that was a block from our tent, where they happily gave out liquor at any hour of the night in exchange for a story or two.

Some people come to Burning Man for the party. Thousands of people drink, take drugs and dance at all hours of the day for a week straight. Ravers, shroomers, straight edge, drunks, you name it, some part of the playa will cater to your vision of a good time. Armin van Buuren played one night. There was a rumor Daft Punk was there. Just taking a walk was a sensory overload.

Burning Man bonfire

Some people come to Burning Man for the artful weirdness. The art that’s strewn about the playa is larger than life, and wandering across the desert to discover giant cast iron sculptures bends the mind in directions not easily replicated. The art cars are roving exhibits with speakers, blasting psi-trance and weirdness into the eyes and ears of everyone.

Some people come to Burning Man for the community. People arrive year after year and congregate into camps with elaborate layouts, themes, names and histories. Stories and legends are born and embellished, die and are resurrected, sometimes among people that only ever see each other on the windswept playa.

Everything builds up to the Burning of the Man. At the center of Black Rock City, the center of the universe, stands a 40 foot tall effigy, constructed on a large wooden platform and surrounded by wooden sculptures. At night he glows with neon. On the the second to last night he is set on fire. Everyone in the city comes out to watch. We sat in a circle cheering and screaming for the Man to Burn Burn Burn, until he burn burn burned with fireworks shooting out of his arms and body, and the large wooden platform beneath him burn burn burned, and then the wooden sculptures around him burn burn burned, and tens of thousands of us scream scream screamed. It was euphoric.

I came to Burning Man expecting to find weirdness, insanity and hippies at every turn. What I found was an instant connection to a community, a fantastic landscape filled with fellow refugees from reality. Burning Man was connectedness. Burning Man was camaraderie. Burning Man was a fantastic time.

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